Sunday 1st June, 2008

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From a Creole hub

I’d been so preoccupied this past week in Wadadli, scrambling to track down strangers or penetrating the familiar wall of protocol and prevarication that surrounds public servants, that it wasn’t until last night the realisation dawned that Antigua is a unique Creole hub.

I was sitting on a bench with my partner, Moti, outside a Dominican bodega, sucking Presidente beer, listening to bachata and merengue on the radio, against a background of Spanish conversation. On the streets of St John’s, whether in the upscale restored Redcliffe or Heritage Quay waterfront or on funky Market Street, where the Syrian shopkeepers sit on the street smoking in their plastic chairs, in front of stores crammed with flyblown fading goods, deep Jamaican Creole mixes with Antiguan Creole.

On Sunday at a christening party in Bolands, I found myself in a Haitian Kreyol exchange with Maura, a Dominican or Santo Domingan as they’re known here (to distinguish them from citizens of the Commonwealth of Dominica), whose family lives close enough to the Haitian border in the Dominican Republic to have picked up the Kreyol of the sugar workers who’ve been crossing the border to harvest for centuries.

When I visited the Culture Development office in St John’s, the young man who received me turned out to be from Sangre Grande. I’m sure with more time I’d be able to pick out the accents of Montserratians and Grenadians.

Because of its central position in the Lesser Antilles chain, Antigua is within jump-off distance from Montserrat, Guadeloupe, St Kitts and Nevis, St Maarten, Saba, St Barts and a short plane ride from the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.

With its open-door immigration policy, following independence in 1981, there’s an unofficial estimate that nearly 40 per cent of the total population of 100,000 comprises non-nationals.

The Montserratians have always had a close relationship with the island that floats just across the water from them. Officers in the colonial Leewards Island Police Force were posted here and many Montserratians came to work on the construction of American army and naval bases during the second World War. After the Soufriere volcano eruption of 1995, a new wave of Montserratians arrived, many en route for the UK.

Antigua’s relationship with the Dominican Republic is equally close. In the 1940s and ’50s Antiguans suffering from the depressed economy at home went to the Dominican Republic to work on the sugar plantations. Some remained after harvest time, married local women and settled. Antiguan names like Joseph, Anthony, Mingo, Spencer, Hughes and Jarvis are now common in the Dominican Republic.

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